Writing. Design. Social Change.

As my friends and colleagues return to the classroom this Fall, I am curious to know what extent you try to build a learning community in your classroom? Each semester I feel my emphasis gravitate more and more to this endeavor. For those committed to this act, or for those influenced by reading bell hook’s Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom — what works for you? I have gleaned some ground rules from bell hooks which I share below and am curious to know more about how others encourage their students to take responsibility for making class “work.”





Use your authority constructively

Power is not negative. It’s what you do with it. hooks uses her authority to facilitate pedagogical practices which create ruptures in the established order. This promotes modes of learning which challenge what she calls “bourgeois hegemony.”

Engage in dialogue

Tell students that they are here to contribute to the dialectical exchange of ideas. Tell students that they will create their own communal context for learning by engaging in reflexive conversations. Tell students that they will all be critical thinkers and listeners in this classroom.

Create a classroom where there is a mutual responsibility for learning

Students may resist this practice, which insists they must participate in their education and not be passive consumers. They have been trained to see you as the only one with authority. The only one with legitimacy. To educate for freedom you have to change the way people think about pedagogical process–and this is especially true for students.

Before you try to engage them in a dialectical discussion of ideas that is mutual, you have to teach about your process.

Tip: Sit in a circle so everyone can look at one another. If students resist, they are really saying that they don’t want to be participants.

Create a space for everyone

Create a space for everyone’s voice in the classroom. The experience of listening to each voice strengthens everyone’s capacity to learn together. Emphasize that everyone has things of value to say. Create a space for everyone.

Tip: hooks has students write short paragraphs that they read aloud so that they all have a chance to hear unique perspectives and all are given the opportunity to pause and listen to one another.

Teach students how to really listen – how to hear one another

One of the responsibilities of the teacher is to help create an environment where students learn that, in addition to speaking, it is important to listen respectfully to others.

There is the responsibility of the teacher to show by example the ability to listen to others seriously. Who decides what is to be pursued in the classroom? You will need to redirect students’ attention away from your voice to one another’s voices.

Tip: hooks finds this happens quickly when students share their experiences in connection with academic subject matter, because then people remember each other.

Make the class “work

The power of the liberatory classroom is, in fact, the power of the learning process—the work we do to establish a community. This “work” might include allowing the class to create their own syllabus, choose their own books, create their own assignments, etc.

Making the class “work” is everyone’s responsibility.

When class “isn’t working” ask students to take responsibility to interrogate why it’s not “working.” Recognize moods.

Simply asking “what’s this about?” can awaken an exciting learning process. Perhaps the set agenda needs to be changed.

Perform frequent identity checks

Questioning how you teach doesn’t question your right to exist as a teacher. The act of questioning does not threaten your identity as a teacher. When you dismantle the bourgeois notion of the professor the sense of significance and your role as teacher will be fundamentally changed. It is okay to grapple with these changes. Besides, what’s the alternative?

A good teacher is one who is not afraid to engage fully and deeply with the art of teaching.

Put no limits on the classroom

Welcome all discussions about ideas and beliefs and subject matter. How could you teach Toni Morrison yet not want to discuss class, race or gender when talking about her books?

Welcome emotional responses as well. There is a notion that to be truly intellectual we must be cut off from our emotions.  Make a place for emotional responses in the classroom. When we bring our passions to the classroom, there is often a deeper level of engagement.

Acknowledge your body–your physical presence– in the classroom

You are not just a mind.  [The old tweed jacket with the rumpled shirt and mustard on the pants]. You have more than an intellectual effect on the student. You also have an effect on how that student perceives reality beyond the classroom.

Tip: Ask students how the class has affected them beyond the classroom walls.

Engage your body in the classroom

Leave your podium and walk around. You will be risking your body—the social order. Do not erase your body. You need to disrupt the notion of the professor as omnipotent, all-knowing “mind.”

You are also a touchable, flawed, body. With that body you can create a space for radical openness.

Think back to the bodies of your professors? Can you recall them as bodies as well as minds? bell hooks remembers very few whole bodies.  Giving fully of yourself includes the giving of your body and getting beyond the mere transmission of information in lectures. When you ask students to think differently about race, class or gender, you are also preparing them to live differently. And that means how their bodies, as well as their minds, relate to the world.

Don’t let people confuse a lack of recognizable traditional formality with a lack of seriousness

Tell students not to confuse informality with a lack of seriousness.

Some may not appear to “respect your authority.” Hooks suggests that the fear of losing people’s respect has discouraged many professors from trying new teaching practices.

It seems traditionally that to prove our academic seriousness students should be almost dead, quiet, asleep, not up, excited and buzzing – or lingering around the classroom.

Tip: Encourage the class to discuss the classroom’s values and commit to and uphold libratory practice in the classroom.

Orchestrate, yet do not lead the conversation

Remember that you are not there to relay information. You are there to work with people.

Once the space for dialogue is open, the moment must be orchestrated.  Steer the conversation away from people who like to hear themselves talk or people who are unable to relate experience to the subject matter.

Tip: At times you may need to interrupt to say: “That’s interesting, but how does that relate to the novel we’re reading?”

You have things to learn from your students

In a critically engaged classroom, you are empowered to learn along with the students. You are also influenced by what students say in the classroom, what they do and what they express. You grow intellectually by learning better ways to share knowledge and what to do in your participatory role with students.

Position yourself as a learner as well.  hooks doesn’t say that we’re all equal here – she’s not suggesting that she doesn’t have more “power” but she does say that we are all equal here to the extent that we are equally committed to creating a learning context.

Transgress, transgress, transgress

Make points of connection with people by continuously crossing boundaries of class, race or gender.

Tip: Ask your students to consider why we only speak and write standard English in the classroom? Encourage students to use their own language or dialect to express themselves. A translation might be necessary – but that’s okay. Saying something first, in the way you want to say it is to practice education as a liberatory practice. When we do this we liberate ourselves in language. When we make our language conform to standards we are –sometimes unconsciously – complying with a culture of domination.

Empower, empower, empower

Grades are something students control by their labor in the classroom. The obsession with good grades has much to do with fear of failure. Progressive teaching tries to eradicate that fear.

Tip: Empower students to have the skills to assess their academic growth properly.

Meet resistance

Even after you take these steps, some students will still see you as the “dictator.” They will see you as dictating that they engage in a liberatory practice, so they comply.

Scenario: When a student says something that you say is good, helpful, smart, etc—it is only through the act of your validating that the other students take note. (In the end, it’s the teacher’s voice that everyone knew all along was the only one to listen to)

Tip: Encourage that students discuss their values and actions and stand up for what they believe in the classroom at all times.

One Response to “Teaching to Transgress”

  1. Lauren Schwartz

    bell hooks is an amazing, amazing woman—she was one of my first feminist heroes.

    I was pleasantly surprised by how well the group discussion went yesterday; I’ve done so many student-led discussions in my collegiate career, and they usually run along the lines of “student asks half-hearted question, other students stare blankly at the walls, student offers unenthusiastic talking point, repeat for ten agonizing minutes”. I wonder if the success of yesterday’s discussion was due in part to the circle, with all of us sitting literally and figuratively at the same level as our peers rather than standing up front and talking down. It really helped foster that positive sense of community and, I think, opened us up more for discussion and debate.

    I just wish some of my other professors would be more willing to break free from the status quo and head more towards active engagement. I can’t imagine watching the standard presentation/discussion is substantially more fun for them to watch than it is for us to offer.

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